Not Just a Wall. April 8, 2003.
It's an absurdity difficult to describe. The Israelis call it "the security fence." The Palestinians have many names for it; which may be accurate given its various forms – fence, barbed wire, wall, concrete, electric fence... In its most general form it's really a border, a separation between the West Bank and Israel. Only it doesn't follow the Green Line – the "accepted" border between the West Bank and Israel; it doesn't seem to follow any logic at all, whether on a map or in real life. In some places it reaches far into the West Bank, in order to go around various settlements to include them outside the wall. It's costing the Israeli government millions of dollars to build, at the cost of health care, education, even military spending – that favorite Israeli cash cow. The Israeli government's plan is to complete the "fence" by 2004, to completely surround the Palestinian areas, from Qalqilya in the West to Jenin in the North, from Nablus in the East to Qalandia in the South. The entire Jordan Valley, that fertile farming soil that the Palestinians have been plowing for generations, will fall on the "other" side. Some Palestinian cities, like Jericho, will be outside the wall all together. The Southern parts of the West Bank will be surrounded too, from Bethlehem to Hebron.
To find the wall I must admit was not an easy task. People thought I was nuts when I asked them to drive me to it; or when they saw me walking through a field to get near to it. There was one farmer in Tulkarem who yelled at me when he saw me walking towards it. "Are you crazy? They're going to shoot you!" He pointed out the observation tower behind the olive groves. I looked at him and said "but I'm a foreigner, they're not going to shoot me. I just want to go and touch it." Well a Belgian man last year thought of doing the same thing and he was shot in the arm. The farmer's wife had been shot at four times while attempting to go pick olives – on her side of the "fence." He insisted on making me a cup of tea. I sat outside on a small stool while he disappeared into a make-shift shack to boil water. We sat out in the hot noon sun and he told me his story. He used to have 2,000 dunums of land, where he would grow cucumbers, tomatoes and all sorts of vegetables and fruits.
A year ago the Israeli military started planting mines in his fields. Later they took some of it for it was deemed on the "wrong" side of the "fence;" the rest that was on his side was planted with mines as well. Today he's left with one small hothouse in which he continues to grow cucumbers and tomatoes. He told me about a volunteer lawyer who was helping him in getting compensation for his lost land. He kept asking me if I thought he had a chance of winning the lawsuit. He also asked me what I thought the solution was to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or to the war on Iraq; but kept returning to his pending lawsuit. I couldn't respond; I was trying to ask him the same questions.
The wall nearby his hothouse was maybe four or five meters high, watch towers along it, and settlements on the other side. I was intent on finding the 8-meter high wall; so I asked around and was told to go to Qalqilya. I figured no problem, I had no idea that the journey from Tulkarem to Qalqilya – a 12 kilometer distance – would take me upwards of five hours – although I stopped to chat with others along the way and see different types of wall construction.
On the outskirts of Tulkarem there is an enormous garbage dump on a hill; driving up to there I was wondering where the young man who volunteered to take me was going. A road block! Of course, hadn't I gotten used to these by now? Around the bend behind one side of the garbage dump was chaos – donkey carts, horses, taxis cabs, little vans, and of course a garbage truck. On a nearby hill I could see the silhouettes of the workers putting in the wiring on the fence to make it an electrical one. I couldn't understand at first why there were donkey carts and horses; but then I realized it was quite a trek to reach the other side. Perhaps a 2-kilometer walk through an unpaved hilly "road". People who had luggage or were too old or sick to walk would pay for a donkey cart ride to the other side. There was no military around, except zooming by in their tanks on the highway that cuts through the walk – a highway that used to be used by Palestinians but has now been turned into a special access road for settlers. None of the traffic slows down when people are trying to cross. I couldn't believe how fast the cars and military Jeeps were driving, but when a tank passed by at over 50-kilometers an hour I was blown away. A bulldozer was on the Tulkarem side of the highway/road block, digging up for the wall's extension. A number of men were farther up the hill, half of them Israeli security guards and half of them laborers, extending the fence down to the highway. I wondered what would happen in a few weeks when construction would be finished; would the Palestinians still be allowed to run across the highway to get to the other side?
A hike up the other side and the chaos of taxi drivers, donkey carts and horses was awaiting me again. I asked a cab driver if he could take me to the 8-meter wall, he asked me for a lot of money and explained that it was a tough road. I thought he was negotiating for more money. We agreed to go and I'd decide how much to pay him when I reached. But first we had to take a detour to pick up an American-Palestinian who was making a film on the wall. He wasn't home, we called him and he was out of town but told us which town to go to. Throughout the drive I could see the scar of digging, fences and walls all around. An unnatural incision for sure, in the middle of olive groves and in the middle of demolished homes. We couldn't drive straight through to Qalqilya, instead we had to go through eight towns on unpaved streets in order to avoid military, settlements and Israeli-only streets.
We reached the town of Hable. I got out of the taxi expecting to see the 8-meter wall. I found a short one, perhaps 4 meters high, still under construction. I walked along it until the end of its construction. A barbed wire fence on the Israeli side, maybe a few land mines as well, I didn't dare go to the other side. A Palestinian man and his family were in their field picking fruit. He pointed to the other side – where Israeli homes were safely tucked behind an electric fence - and explained that that used to be part of his land. Then he pointed to the nearby hill and explained the same thing. The wall was supposed to go around the farther hill, but the military recently changed its mind and now the man was going to lose even more land. When I asked him about compensation – having my first conversation still in mind – he almost started to laugh. "They say our land is not stolen, it's not confiscated. It's on-hold for five years, so there is nothing we can press charges against." I thought about the previous farmer and thought to myself I was glad that I didn't know this a few hours earlier. I didn't know what to tell this man either so I just thanked him and got back to the taxi. "So where is this 8-meter wall?" I kept urging him. "Now, now we'll go. It's in Qalqilya. And it's bigger than 8 meters I tell you." He pointed to a hill from the one we were standing on, and said "see over there, that's Qalqilya." It didn't seem far away at all, maybe 3 or 4 kilometers at most. We drove down through the town and stopped nearby a small banana plantation. We got out of the taxi; he asked me if I wanted him to come along, to which I said "sure."
We walked for a few meters then came across a mud path. I couldn't see what was up ahead. I walked, my feet sinking every now and then into the mud, making a mess of my shoes and pants. We trekked through the mud and reached an Israeli highway with a metal barricade in front of us. A little bit of barbed wire, a few concrete blocks; but obviously this was the path given the footsteps all over the ground. We climbed through some barbed wire, stood on the side of the highway looking left and right to find a few seconds in between cars for us to run. We ran, on the other side more concrete blocks and barbed wire. We climbed over. I stomped a bit to get rid of the mud build-up on my shoes. The taxi driver screamed "hurry up. They'll catch us." I looked around and noticed a military watch tower on top of a nearby hill. Ok, we'll run, I thought. Only the mud was much worse on this side, at times up to knee-deep. To keep up the pace was no easy task. Across the mud for a couple of hundred feet and suddenly there was a man-made gorge. Digging where the wall will eventually be built. The foundation not yet laid, but the fissure two meters deep. We walked along the ridge – attempting to keep a fast pace – to find a place to jump down and up to the other side. I felt like a prisoner on the run; I wondered what this place was like on a rainy day, how a family with little kids managed to jump down two meters onto the mud track – with muddy water and sewage underneath – and hop on to the other side. It wasn't mountain climbing, it was more trying to keep from falling in the mud while climbing a muddy mountain. We get up to the other side – I don't know if I could have made it alone. I looked to my left and saw a military Jeep hiding nearby. "We have to keep running" the taxi driver said. The mud was deep, still wet, the thickness weighing and slowing me down. Another two hundred feet and we were on safer ground, an unpaved road, clear from vision from the military. We walked up through a fence, a few feet in front of us another taxi driver was waiting for us. I felt hesitant to get in, knowing I was going to make a mess of his car. I tried to clean my shoes a bit to no avail really.
We drove through downtown Qalqilya, and took a turn by a boy's school. Suddenly I saw the monstrosity of the wall I was trying to find. It was huge. A fortress wall, a prison wall? Even those seemed less daunting than this. A huge grey concrete wall with watch towers every 20 or 30 meters apart, and masses of mud and sewage underneath. A couple of kids were standing nearby practicing their sling shots. We asked them if there was any military in the towers and they said no, so we approached. I wanted to touch this damn thing, to feel its cold drabness on my tiny hand. I could hear my feet squish and sink underneath me, the mud a dark grayish brown. It reeked. I tried to get closer, only to find myself walking in floating garbage and sewage intertwined with the mud. It was easy to fall into, impossible to get a good grip with my shoes. I stood there in the mud in awe, staring at this huge wall. To the right and left of me I couldn't see its end; only a few watchtowers receding into the horizon. A sewage hole underneath it, through the grid I could almost see the other side; it had to be at least 5 or 6 meters thick. Crossing the San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz seemed like a much more achievable task in front of this. The Berlin Wall didn't even compare in size. This thing was in fact 9 meters high, not 8. It was the model of what most of the rest of the wall would look like, crisscrossing all over the inside of the West Bank. I could drown in stinky mud, perhaps try to break through the sewage grid to get to the other side, of course risk getting shot at by military patrollers. To think of climbing the thing was preposterousness hard to describe. It was the biggest prison wall I'd ever seen in my life. Maybe the Great Wall of China could compare in mass; only this thing was ugly, sleek grey concrete blocks blocking off the sun. There was nothing I could do; to film this thing felt utterly ridiculous, it would be impossible to portray its magnitude, let alone its location, its symbolism, how unlike a "security fence" it really was. I retreated, looked around me. The boy's school had been shut down because it was to close to the wall – a "security threat" according to the Israeli military. Even with a wall this high, things on this side were still deemed a threat.
It was too late in the afternoon at that point for me to find a taxi ride back to Ramallah. It had already taken me two hours to reach Tulkarem through the back roads, and another five hours to reach here. I had to spend the night somewhere.
Later that evening I sat with a mother in her house, offering me a cup of tea and some fresh green almonds we picked from trees. She pointed to a valley from her window, "over there, you see where the hothouse is?" Yes, it was a huge expanse of farm land, olive trees and hothouses everywhere, Tel Aviv in the far distance. I could almost see the Sea. "That is our land but they've taken it away. We're not allowed to pick our olives anymore." She told me that she was dreading the Autumn coming for that would be the time that she and her neighbors would be getting ready to pick the olives. "What I'm supposed to go buy olives and olive oil now? My whole life I've been picking my own olives and making my own olive oil. It is our only means of income." I looked down the hill, a beautiful view ripped apart by a wall. That night I found it hard to sleep. I kept thinking of all the people I'd met that day who had lost their land. I kept seeing this huge wall in front of me. This was no security fence, no matter how hard I may try to convince myself of it. It was a prison wall, there was nothing I could be more sure of.
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